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Milwaukee Ballet Premieres ‘La Boheme’

Michael Pink presents Puccini without words

Oct. 9, 2012
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One thing Michael Pink didn’t consider in planning his 10th year as Milwaukee Ballet’s artistic director is that it was his 10th year. Though it means he has now held that position longer than anyone—a full quarter of the company’s history—he wasn’t counting, he says.

He’ll open the season with a new ballet, La Boheme, set to the complete Giacomo Puccini opera score, its story told in dance. Story ballets are Pink’s forte, and the ballet world needs new ones. In the last three years, he’s given us Dracula, Esmeralda, Peter Pan and original adaptations of Cinderella, Coppelia and The Nutcracker. This season will close with a new Swan Lake. He’s built a terrific company of dancers he can count on to ignite his ideas. He’s raised the international profile of the company significantly and made Milwaukee Ballet matter to a great many more people here at home.

Ballet and opera have partnered in many ways since Louis XIV married them in Paris at the end of the 17th century. This will be the world’s first complete balletic interpretation of Puccini’s beloved 1896 opera. Given Pink’s record, it is reasonable to hope it will enjoy a life beyond Milwaukee.

The company’s music director, Andrews Sill, has arranged Puccini’s score so its vocal lines are played instrumentally. Sill and Pink have restructured the opera’s four acts to three, but all the music will be there, and then some. Passages were lengthened when the dancing needed extra time. Still, the ballet moves along more quickly than the opera. “We’re taking energetic, youthful tempos,” Pink says.

Following the lead of Australian director Baz Lurhmann’s 1990 production of the opera (revived to acclaim on Broadway in 2003), Pink has changed the period from the 1830s to the 1950s. We’re still in the Paris Latin Quarter, but the bohemianism of postwar Paris is closer to what some of us remember from the 1960s and ’70s, when young people here were willing to starve for their art.

“There were no real material values among the young in 1950s Paris,” Pink says. “What counted was creativity. People wanted freedom of expression. They lived from hand to mouth because they were committed to their art. They fell in and out of love with each other. Promiscuity was a socially accepted part of their lives. Illness was never imagined. Life was for living.”

The story makes a good case for affordable health care. Mimi, whose art form is embroidery, is in poor health when the writer Rodolfo meets her on the stairway of the tenement they share. They fall in love and live together, but her rapid physical decline frightens him. He feels responsible for her racking cough because he hasn’t earned enough to keep the heat on in winter. He tries to save her by ending their affair, but to avoid alarming her with a health discussion, he blames his verifiable, unjustifiable jealousy. None of their group of impoverished artist friends can imagine visiting a doctor.

The profundity lies in the music, of course, but with respect for the opera’s many devotees, Pink has challenged himself to follow the libretto. “I told myself I can’t cut, can’t fabricate,” he says. There is a gap in the narrative. Act 3 ends with the reunited Mimi and Rodolfo promising to stay together till spring, but Act 4 opens with the news that Mimi is somehow living with a rich man. Sill and Pink have added a scene with music from Puccini’s “Prelude Sinfonico” to make sense of this.

Pink decided to transform the opera to dance, he says, when he realized that the main characters were perfectly matched to his principal dancers. Indeed, the cast is reason enough to attend the show. Luz San Miguel and Nicole Teague will alternate as Mimi. Their respective Rodolfo’s are David Hovhannisyan and Alexandre Ferreira. In all performances, Annia Hidalgo is Musetta, Marc Petrocci is Colline, and Ryan Martin is Schaunard. Tim O’Donnell, a new member of the company this season, will play Marcello. The exciting Australian dancer and choreographer O’Donnell, winner of Milwaukee Ballet’s 2009 Genesis International Choreographic Competition, choreographed the thrilling Bolero: Let There Be Light in 2010.

La Boheme runs Oct. 18-21 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. It’s presented to honor philanthropist Nita Soref for her years of work on behalf of the arts in Milwaukee. For ticket information, call 414-902-2103 or visit www.milwaukeeballet.org.

John Schneider is a playwright, actor, director and assistant A&E editor for the
Shepherd Express. He teaches theater and dance at Marquette University.


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